Monday, 3 February 2020

Atlantics (Mati Diop, 2019)

Last year, Atlantics' director Mati Diop made history as the first black female director to compete for Cannes' Palme d'Or; her debut feature went on to win the the festival's Grand Prix, only being pipped to the top prize by Bong Joon-ho's much-lauded Parasite.  Diop actually made her first short film way back in 2004, but in the years between that effort and last year's Cannes triumph she had become better known for her work in front of the camera, starring in the likes of Simon Killer and Claire Denis' excellent 35 Shots of Rum.  2019 came to a close with Atlantics ending up on both Netflix and the shortlist for the Oscars, and en route to these events it had also picked up the Sutherland Award for First Feature at the London Film Festival.  Not a bad year's work.

While Atlantics didn't make the final cut for the Oscars when the shortlist was chopped in half last month, its presence on Netflix will ensure the film receives way more exposure than it would have had in the times before streaming services.  The days of such a film being relegated to a limited release on the art-house circuit - before eventually turning up on a boutique home video label - seem to be fading; at the very least, such a fate is no longer a certainty.  While it will get a Blu-ray release - via the prestigious Criterion Collection, no less - later on this year, the lengthy wait which would once have been in place between the film's theatrical release and its appearance on disc is seamlessly bridged by the streaming giant.  The Netflix vs. cinema row has been raging for some time but, in the case of Atlantics, streaming's role is hard to argue against; a film which, had it appeared 10 or 15 years ago, would have been treated as a niche title can now share a home screen with the likes of Uncut Gems, Marriage Story and The Irishman.

Anyway, on to the film: Ada (Mame Bineta Sane),a young woman living in Dakar, is due to marry the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla).  Unfortunately, Ada's heart belongs to construction worker Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who has been working on a huge, futuristic tower in the city.  Souleiman and his fellow builders are continually stiffed for wages by the developer (Diankou Sembene), which leads to them looking elsewhere for paying work, and they decide to attempt the perilous journey across the sea to Spain.  It's perhaps not much of  a spoiler to say that Souleiman and the others sadly don't make it to Europe; meanwhile, back in Dakar, Ada marries Omar, but their wedding night doesn't happen due to a mysterious fire occurring in the bridal suite.  To say what happens next would be to spoil, but suffice it to say that the film takes a sharp left turn, one for the better; it's really only once you reach the halfway stage that the film really starts to crackle and fizz, as Diop adds an extra layer to proceedings.

Much has been made of Atlantics' switch from realism to something altogether different, and it's a trick which has certainly been handled very deftly by Diop.  The film is wonderfully atmospheric, combining some beguiling cinematography with a driving, unnerving score.  Whether in the bustling streets of Dakar or by the side of the sea which plays a key part in the story, Diop shows a fine eye for light and colour.  It's a haunting, ambitious work, yet not without its flaws: there's an unevenness to proceedings which proves slightly frustrating, and the film really does take some time to get going.  But, all said, Atlantics is a fine debut feature, one which greatly impresses as it continually pushes into new territory - even if such moves don't always come off; Diop doesn't play it safe here, and there's much to like about that approach.  We'll be hearing from her for some time yet.

Darren Arnold


Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, 2019)

Following the second series of Li'l Quinquin, Bruno Dumont immediately set about making another sequel with Jeanne, or Joan of Arc, which continues his retelling of the Maid of Orléans' story which began with 2017's demented musical Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (which, incidentally, was the very first film to be reviewed in this incarnation of Holland Focus).  As with its predecessor, Jeanne is an adaptation of Charles Péguy's 1897 play Jeanne d'Arc, but this time around Dumont mixes it up a bit and opts for much gentler musical accompaniment in the form of the variété française of 70s pop star Christophe (who cameos here), whose distinctive falsetto replaces the much harsher sounds of Jeannette composer Igorrr.  There's another key personnel change in the form of cinematographer David Chambille, who comes in for Dumont's longtime DP Guillaume Deffontaines.  Chambille, who lensed last year's smash hit Invisibles, steps into Deffontaines' shoes without missing a beat, and his work here on the interiors (of which there were none in Jeannette) proves to be particularly impressive.

But perhaps the biggest surprise in Jeanne - which earned a Special Mention from the jury at Cannes - comes in the casting of its leading actress.  While you may have been expecting to see Jeanne Voisin continue in the role she played in the second half of the earlier film, it's Lise Leplat Prudhomme - the younger Joan in the previous instalment - who returns from Jeannette to play a much older version of the character in Jeanne.  Apparently Voisin was lined up to play the part but eventually bowed out, leaving Dumont to turn to his other Joan from Jeannette.  As a result, watching the two works as a double bill (or simply one very long film) will no doubt be rather jarring in terms of continuity - Joan will apparently get older then younger, perhaps leading viewers to think that Jeanne Voisin's scenes are some sort of flash-forward.  But any such issues shouldn't detract from the work of Prudhomme, who gives another terrific performance here, despite playing a character who, by the end of the film, is nearly twice the actress' age.  Jeanne is a long, hefty and frequently taxing film, and this talented ten-year-old carries it quite brilliantly.

Jeanne begins with things going very well for the title character as the Hundred Years' War between France and England rages on; with her famous victory at the Battle of Orléans in the bag, Joan is delighted to see the Dauphin crowned king of France.  However, after Charles VII (Fabrice Luchini) is installed as monarch (thanks in no small part to Joan's help), he takes a position very different to that of Joan regarding how events should proceed: Charles favours diplomacy, while La Pucelle wishes to continue fighting.  As Joan's military luck eventually runs out, she's captured then delivered to the English, for whom she's proved to be quite the fly in the ointment.  The rest - indeed, the bulk - of the film is dedicated to the exhaustive, and exhausting, ecclesiastical interrogation which this young woman is subjected to in Rouen (actually Amiens) Cathedral.  Needless to say, King Charles is nowhere to be seen as Joan is tried and sentenced.  Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll be painfully aware of the horrible, fiery fate which awaits the protagonist, and in Jeanne - as in every other screen version of this story - her inevitable untimely death hangs over the entire duration as events stick to their terrible course.

Movies about Joan of Arc are nearly as old as cinema itself and, of the many films of Joan's story, the one Dumont's take has most in common with is Jacques Rivette's Joan the Maid - although the parallels are only fully obvious now Dumont has made this second film.  Rivette's version likewise cast an actress whose age (27) was some way off that of the real Joan, and was also released as two separate films (carrying the sub-titles The Battles and The Prisons), each of which documented a different stage of Joan's short life.  Equally perversely, both projects disregard significant events: Jeanne neglects to show the capture of Joan by the Burgundians, while Joan the Maid - which totals a running time of well over five hours in its unexpurgated version - omits her entire trial, slapping up a solitary title card to account for months of what Jeanne depicts.  And Dumont, just like Rivette before him and no doubt for similar (i.e. budgetary) reasons, populates his Joan of Arc films with just a few characters at any given time; those coming to any of these films expecting to see hundreds of extras battling it out, Lord of the Rings-style, at Orlèans or Compiègne will be sorely disappointed, and may be better served by Luc Besson's unfairly maligned The Messenger.

While such a constraint could easily have seen all four of the Rivette/Dumont films succumb to an unwelcome staginess (not that Rivette was averse to a bit of theatricality in many of his other films), in Dumont's case this has been resolved via some huge, wide shots of both the windswept Opal Coast and the interior of Amiens Cathedral; both directors' films on Joan - which share a distributor in Les Films du Losange - certainly feel grand (Rivette also used the landscape to let his film open up and breathe).  In Jeanne it's actually the cathedral scenes which are the more effective, as the exteriors feature a number of abandoned WW2 blockhouses - one of which serves as Joan's prison - which are far too recognisably 20th century to really aid suspension of disbelief.  While these buildings make for an atmospheric backdrop to some of the scenes in the quite contemporary Li'l Quinquin, their presence in Jeanne is most distracting - even if Dumont claims to be aiming for a "timeless" accuracy, as opposed to a historical one.  Of course, if you're not familiar with the area where Jeanne was filmed, then this may not present too much of a problem.

In many ways, the main purpose of Jeanne appears to be to replicate the gruelling nature of Joan's trial - that is to say, to make the audience feel as drained, weary and bewildered as our young heroine as she endures endless rounds of arcane questions from the parade of clerics which lines the cathedral's benches.  The clergy's attempts may be futile vis-à-vis wearing down the accused, but they prove to be quite effective when it comes to getting the viewer to crack: the screening I attended saw numerous walkouts - apparently a not uncommon occurrence during Jeanne's theatrical release (and festival showings).  It's certainly an endurance test, and if the dry theological debates don't get you, chances are the long static takes will.  In employing such a daring, unusual film grammar, Dumont has created what is by far his most challenging work; not only is the pacing very slow and deliberate, but at 138 minutes this is the second longest of the director's films (1999's Humanity - which positively flies by in comparison - exceeds it by around ten minutes).  Jeannette may have been niche, but its sequel will appeal to far, far fewer.  Which is not to say that the film isn't worthwhile; here, Bruno Dumont presents a real cinema experience in which those with sufficient patience (say, of a saint?) will be rewarded - although the austere Jeanne has no intention of giving up its mysteries without a fight.  You have been warned.

Darren Arnold

Images: Les Films du Losange

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Monday, 23 December 2019

The 20 Best Films of 2019: An Alphabetical List

There wasn't much time available in which to put this together, and ideally I would have liked to have scribbled a little bit about each entry.  Instead, if I've written about a film on either this site or Letterboxd, then the film's title will be a clickable link which will take you to the relevant review.  I have a terrible feeling I've forgotten at least one really important film in this list, and I'm also slightly annoyed that I couldn't squeeze in Robert Rodriguez's Alita: Battle Angel, which nonetheless deserves a mention as the best of the rest.  So, in no order other than alphabetical, here are my picks of 2019:

La Belle Époque (Nicolas Bedos)

By the Grace of God (François Ozon)

Capernaum (Nadine Labaki)

Doctor Sleep (Mike Flanagan)

For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts)

Ghost Town Anthology (Denis Côté)

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

It Must Be Heaven (Elia Suleiman)

Jeanne (Bruno Dumont)

Joker (Todd Phillips)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Monos (Alejandro Landes)

On a Magical Night (Christophe Honoré)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese)

Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (J. J. Abrams)

La vérité si je mens! Les débuts (Michel Munz, Gérard Bitton)

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

That's it for this year!  See you in 2020 - have a great Christmas! 🎄



Thursday, 19 December 2019

On a Magical Night (Christophe Honoré, 2019)

On a Magical Night marks the sixth collaboration between director Christophe Honoré and actress Chiara Mastroianni, and it follows the general rule that these two are at their best when working with each other.  While Love Songs remains the pinnacle of the pair's work together, On a Magical Night - which reunites Honoré and Mastroianni for the first time since 2011's Beloved - sees the two drive each other on to good effect.  Mastroianni picked up the best performance award in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section for On a Magical Night, a film which sees her equal Louis Garrel's record of half a dozen stints in front of the camera for Honoré.  The cast is rounded out by Vincent Lacoste (who returns from Honoré's previous film Sorry Angel), the excellent Camille Cottin, Benjamin Biolay, plus some serious star power in the form of the welcome presence of Carole Bouquet, who doesn't make enough films these days.

Mastroianni's Maria has been married to Richard (Biolay) for 20 years, and the couple have now hit a wall in their relationship.  Following a major argument, Maria moves out of their apartment, but doesn't go very far - in fact, she checks in to the hotel directly across the street from the marital home.  From her room in the hotel, she can watch Benjamin moping around in the aftermath of their row; the particular room Maria's holed up in - 212 - carries significance, as its number is shared by a section of civil code which outlines spousal obligations.  So far, so straightforward, but events take a strange turn when Maria is visited by a ghost from the past in the form of the young Richard (Lacoste).  From this younger version of her husband, Maria learns all about Richard's first love Irène (Cottin), who soon joins the couple in the hotel room.  Like Richard, Irène has also turned the clock back, and appears to be the age she was when she and Richard were in a relationship.  All of this gives the initially baffled Maria - who remains her actual age throughout - plenty to think about as she considers both the state of her marriage and her next move.

As a studio-bound affair featuring just a handful of actors, On a Magical Night could quite easily be a play (and Honoré is no stranger to theatre), yet at no point does it feel stagey.  While much of the action takes place in the hotel room, Honoré lets his film breathe via a late seaside scene and, most memorably, the road which separates Maria's hotel and apartment.  Shots of this avenue play a big part in creating the film's wonderfully rich atmosphere; as the snow begins to fall on this quiet street - which prominently features a seven-screen cinema - the beauty of the mise-en-scène is something to behold.  However, the icy spectacle also serves to remind us that Richard and Maria are in the winter of their relationship, and it's going to take a mighty big snow shovel to dig them out of it.

While there isn't a weak link among the small cast, and Mastroianni is as good as we've come to expect, it's actually Camille Cottin who steals every scene she's in; since starting off in a series of two-minute sketches for TV, Cottin has racked up an impressive list of film credits and has shown that she has range beyond comedy, with her turn as a no-nonsense detective in Iris proving how good she can be in a serious dramatic role.  While On a Magical Night certainly falls on the lighter side of drama and has some gently humorous moments, Cottin expertly brings out the pathos in her character, yet is always ready to utilise her impeccable comic timing when required.  But to focus exclusively on Cottin would be to do a disservice to Honoré and the rest of his fine cast, who have here created an atmospheric, intelligent and engaging work, one which could even be said to be rather - ahem - magical.

Darren Arnold


Sunday, 8 December 2019

The Life of Jesus (Bruno Dumont, 1997)

Bruno Dumont's 1997 debut feature The Life of Jesus has recently been treated to a 4K digital makeover, with this restoration enjoying a release both in cinemas and on home video.  Sometimes too much is made of restored versions of films, and most of us have at some stage been burned by this marketing tool, with many a much-trumpeted release failing to produce a noticeable difference between prints old and new.  However, in The Life of Jesus' case there is a huge gap in quality between this release and those which preceded it; over the years, the film hasn't always looked in the best of shape, but this pristine new version really does look like it was shot yesterday.  There's an added poignancy to this re-release in that the film's star, the charismatic David Douche, died in a house fire four years ago today.  The Life of Jesus was Douche's sole acting credit, which is a not uncommon statistic among the non-professionals who populate much of Dumont's work.  On hearing of Douche's death, some who knew him were surprised to learn of his big-screen adventure; he apparently never spoke of his starring role in a film which had wowed audiences at Cannes.

If you've never seen the film, it's worth mentioning now that The Life of Jesus isn't actually about the life of Jesus.  It's an oblique title (which does become slightly clearer after multiple viewings), one shared with a book by Breton writer Ernest Renan.  In Renan's 1863 bestseller, Jesus was portrayed as a great leader, yet one who was categorically human - thus, acts such as his miracles were rejected outright; Renan didn't do this out of disrespect, but rather felt that his take on Jesus would improve Christ's standing as an important historical character, albeit one who should be subjected to the same biographical scrutiny as any other notable person from the past.  Naturally, this approach ruffled a few feathers, but Renan sincerely felt that, in humanising Christ and stripping away the supernatural aspects of the gospel, he was affording greater dignity to Jesus and his achievements.  While Dumont's film is not an adaptation of the book, the use of Renan's title does feel strangely apt: just as Christ's feats - as according to Renan - required no superhuman powers, acts of evil in the film aren't rooted in the diabolical.  In Dumont's films, the spectrum of good and evil is usually somewhat narrower than is generally accepted, yet there's often a yearning for spirituality, too; since The Life of Jesus, Dumont has explored these themes on more than one occasion, most prominently in Outside Satan.

Now you know what the film isn't about, here's the gist: Freddy (Douche) and his friends while away their days in a small provincial Flanders town, with their go-to activity being to race their mopeds through the streets and around the surrounding countryside.  None of these aimless young men appears to be gainfully employed; beyond motorbikes, the only shared pastime of note they have is playing in the local marching band.  That said, the epileptic Freddy owns a pet finch which he takes great care of, and he does have a girlfriend in Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), who works as a cashier in the local supermarket.  Marie and Freddy's relationship is tested by the latter's erratic behaviour, and once Kader (Kader Chaatouf) - a young man of North African heritage who's been subjected to the casual racism of Freddy et al. - enters the fray and begins to vie for Marie's affections, you just know that this isn't going to end well.  On account of his epilepsy, Freddy is no stranger to hospitals, but it's actually when he's attending one as a visitor that we get the film's sole explicit biblical reference: as the brother of one of Freddy's friends lies dying of AIDS, we see a picture on the wall of the raising of Lazarus.  But, in line with Ernest Renan's theories regarding Jesus' abilities, there will be no resurrection for this unfortunate patient.

Even after a dozen films - and we'll be reviewing his latest next month - The Life of Jesus still stands as Dumont's most accessible work, with only Hadewijch and Flanders mounting a serious challenge to that title.  While it occasionally flirts with the transgressiveness which would turn full-bore with Dumont's next two films - Humanity and Twentynine Palms The Life of Jesus plays as a direct and engrossing work, one which at no point feels like a first film; the fluency displayed in much later works such as Camille Claudel 1915 is fully evident here.  In his films, Dumont has seldom strayed from his own back yard, using the backdrop of the Flanders he knows to great effect.  It has often been said that he frequently uses the landscape as a character in its own right, and nowhere is this more apparent than in The Life of Jesus, in which we see Dumont's home town and its environs in different seasons.  But, regardless of whether it's a stifling summer or a snowy winter, Freddy's life never changes very much - until the final reel.  Late on in the film, we glimpse an ant running along Freddy's bare arm, while he in turn looks to the sky - seemingly newly aware that he, just like the insect, is part of something much bigger.

Darren Arnold

Images: 3B Productions

Thursday, 21 November 2019

By the Grace of God (François Ozon, 2019)

François Ozon is a filmmaker who almost always comes up with something interesting.  Some of his earlier works were associated with the New French Extremity, and for many years this prolific, mischievous director has seesawed between high frivolity (8 Women, Potiche) and more sombre concerns (5x2, Time to Leave).  While sitting down to watch an Ozon film, you're pretty confident you'll find him working in one of these modes - or maybe even both, as in In the House and Young & Beautiful.  His most recent film prior to By the Grace of God was Double Lover, which played almost as a self-parody: borderline transgressive, trashy and sloppy, it was a film which saw Ozon treading water as he went through the motions of adapting Joyce Carol Oates' 1987 novel Lives of the Twins.  While admittedly rather fun, it was cookie-cutter Ozon which presented nothing especially new.  But the throwaway Double Lover provided no hint as to what Ozon would do next: his latest film is a truly staggering work, one quite unlike anything else in the director's filmography.

As with the terrific Oscar-winner Spotlight, By the Grace of God is concerned with the Catholic Church abuse scandal, and Ozon is quite open about the similarities between the two films.  However, By the Grace of God does differ from Tom McCarthy's movie, not least in that Ozon's film was made as the trial of one of its characters was still in progress; an unusual move, certainly, yet one which imbues the film with a sense of freshness and immediacy which is almost palpable.  By the Grace of God was not only made while these court proceedings were underway, but the film itself was dragged into the courts as Bernard Preynat, the priest depicted in the film, attempted to block its release.  Incredibly, this €6 million production was only cleared for release the day before it was due to hit cinemas.  Indeed, the story of By the Grace of God's production would make for a gripping film in itself.

Ozon's film follows three grown men, all of whom were childhood victims of Preynat (Bernard Verley).  The first chunk of the film is devoted to Alexandre (Ozon regular Melvil Poupaud), a calm family man who's shocked to learn that Preynat, under the Cardinal's protection, is still working with children.  As a result of this discovery, Alexandre decides to take action, and a church psychologist arranges a meeting between victim and abuser, which is intended to aid the healing process.  Preynat doesn't deny what happened, and while he seems pleased to see that Alexandre has grown up to be a well-adjusted member of society, the priest doesn't seem especially sorry for the crimes he committed, merely stating that they were the symptom of an illness; he's certainly not looking for forgiveness.  The slightly surreal meeting ends with the truly sickening, horrifying sight of Alexandre being persuaded to take Preynat's hand as a concluding prayer is recited.

The more cautious Alexandre then gives way in the narrative to the headstrong François (Denis Ménochet), another victim, yet one who wants to cause maximum damage to the Church.  Like Alexandre, François has grown up to become a content and fulfilled adult, yet his atheism drives him in a way which Alexandre - who still attends church with his young family - can't fully relate to.  Nonetheless, Alexandre and François have more than enough in common as they look to take on Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), who seems chiefly concerned with putting his institution's reputation ahead of its victims.  The film's title comes from a quote from the Cardinal, who stated that it was "by the grace of God" that the statute of limitations precluded most of the abuse cases making it to court.  Make of that what you will.

Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), the third and last of the film's main characters to be introduced, is by far the most damaged of the Church's victims.  Prone to seizures which are linked to the trauma of his abuse, the unemployed Emmanuel appears to have spent his entire adult life on his uppers, and lives in a shabby apartment with a girlfriend he constantly argues with.  But through meeting Alexandre, François and other victims, Emmanuel gains a sense of purpose as this trio of very different men join forces in order to seek justice.  While the three main actors are all terrific here, it's Arlaud who steals the film with a truly incendiary performance, with his Emmanuel representing the impact of the Church's crimes at its worst: for every Alexandre (or François) who managed to get on with their life, there are many Emmanuels out there, stuck in a rut, broken and forgotten - if they're still alive.

By the Grace of God is an immaculate, quietly devastating work which continues telling a story the world needs to hear.  While someone might suggest you should just watch Spotlight instead as it covers a lot of similar ground, By the Grace of God's existence is hugely important, as it serves as a European angle on a problem which has affected many parts of the world; hopefully, there will be more films which highlight the Catholic Church abuse scandal in other territories.  While it may well be Ozon's best film, By the Grace of God is also the least typical of the director's works, and his fingerprints are nowhere to be found here; it provides final proof, if any were needed, of this genre-hopping filmmaker's versatility.  While normal service will most likely be resumed with his upcoming Eté 84 (which also stars Poupaud and has already finished shooting), this welcome departure for François Ozon is a vital, urgent work, and one of 2019's best films.

Darren Arnold